Ad Buyers Dislike ‘USA Today’ Super Bowl Ad Meter

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By: John Consoli

(Mediaweek) Insiders at CBS said that through last weekend there were only a “handful” of in-game Super Bowl spots available. But media buyers with knowledge of avails said that handful was about eight, up about three or four from a few weeks earlier because a few advertisers decided not to honor their commitments.

That, according to media buyers and sales executives from networks which have carried the Super Bowl in the past, is not unusual. “This has always been the way it works,” said Rino Scanzoni, national broadcast president at Mediaedge:cia, who has several clients in the game this year. “I don’t ever recall that if you wanted to get into the Super Bowl in the last week — and many times right up until game time — that you couldn’t get in. CBS is not in any different position this year.”

CBS execs did not want to comment, but sales execs at ABC and Fox (which alternate airing the Super Bowl) and media buyers cite the intense scrutiny of the ads — both at the watercooler and in press critiques such as USA Today’s annual Super Bowl Ad Meter — as contributing to advertisers’ growing reluctance to buy Super Bowl spots. It’s also why some who commit early end up pulling out before the game.

Of the scores of published critiques, perhaps best-known is USA Today’s Ad Meter, a survey of several hundred viewers who watch the game and rate Super Bowl commercials based on their creativity. Results are published in the newspaper the next day.

Now in its 16th year, media coverage of the survey has grown. The greater exposure has helped make some would-be advertisers gun-shy about spending $2 million-plus per spot, on top of production costs, only to have the bad reviews of a few hundred viewers published in a national paper.

“The scrutiny of the creativeness of the ads in the Super Bowl has driven some advertisers away,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ABC/ESPN Sports Customer Marketing and Sales. “The advertisers who finish in the top 30 or 40% of the USA Today Ad Meter come out OK, but if they finish below that, their company officers and shareholders begin to question whether the heavy expenditure was worth it.”

“It is not a public relations advantage for an advertiser or media agency to spend so much money and to be panned so prominently for its creativity,” said Jon Nesvig, president of Fox ad sales. “Every year some advertisers commit early and then pull out because they are worried that their creative will not hold up. We have no choice but to let them pull out.”

While none of his clients pulled out, Scanzoni said, some decided to not advertise in the Super Bowl because they were concerned their creative was not up to par considering the massive scrutiny.

“It bothers me who these people are, how they are picked — and are they really qualified to judge the creativeness of advertising? They are such a small slice of the population, and they tend to pick the same types of commercials every year. Commercials with comedy do well. That’s why Budweiser and Pepsi always do well, and auto companies and movie companies do not traditionally do as well in the survey,” said Larry Novenstern, senior vp/director of national broadcast at Deutsch.

John Hillkirk, editor of USA Today’s “Money” section, which features the Ad Meter, defended the survey. “It is not supposed to be the experts’ view; it really is the view of the average person watching the game,” he said.

In the 2003 Ad Meter, Anheuser-Busch/Budweiser garnered six of the Top 10 spots, so it is no surprise the brewer is running multiple units during this year’s telecast.

Despite the wave of white noise surrounding Super Bowl creative, the big game’s gigantic audience continues to make it the year’s marquee media buy. Most of the major movie studios have purchased at least one spot each again this year, despite the fact that most of their ads finished in the lower half of USA Today survey last year.

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